LIVING The elusive Ukrainian model exclusively talks to Reilly Sullivan about what’s next
Reilly Sullivan is a contributor to Lucire.
Before Gigi and Bella, before social media, Snejana Onopka was as ubiquitous in fashion as Diet Coke and green salad. Her rise was one of those Natalia Vodianova-esque model fairy tales: scouted in her eastern European homeland, and scaling fashion’s dizzying heights within months. Since embarking on an open-ended hiatus, you’ll often find her on Instagram attentively chatting with fans and sharing some seriously major throwbacks. Fittingly, Instagram is where I caught up with Snejana and with a new agency and a new perspective, and why she’s poised for her comeback.
Even those with only a passing interest in fashion in the 2000s could probably recognize Snejana Onopka—or at the very least that face. Flick through any fashion magazine and the Kiev-based beauty was an editorial and campaign fixture. Still, she never necessarily set out to model. ‘It was my dream when I was 14, but after, I was not thinking to be a model. People from DNA model management came to Kiev especially for me.’
Though she was scouted in Kiev, Snejana originally hails from the small industrial city of Sievierodonetsk, a town more famous for producing chemicals than supermodels.
Following that fateful scouting from DNA, the then-19-year-old relocated to New York City, where things moved quickly. ‘First it was test shootings for my book, and in two months it was a Dolce campaign with Steven Meisel.’ It was early 2005, and Meisel took a particular liking to the young Ukrainian, sparking a slate of high-profile campaigns. Two covers of Vogue Italia followed, in addition to dozens of other covers including French and Japanese Vogue, Numéro, i-D and W. The Meisel moments are a particular highlight. ‘It’s just amazing working with Steven. It’s very easy, because he knows what he wants.’
By the time of her official runway début at Marc Jacobs that spring, Onopka was already well on her way to becoming one of the top high fashion models in the world. Blessed by the fashion gods, Snejana rapidly ascended the coveted Top 50 list on models.com. Despite her meteoric success, she kept a pragmatic approach to the profession. ‘I realized that I’m successful, but I never feel that I’m a “star” or something like this.’
At a glance, her résumé is an extensive who’s who of fashion greats. She’s served as a campaign girl for the likes of Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Lanvin, Calvin Klein, Saint Laurent, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford, alongside none other than the designer himself. She has particularly fond memories of meeting Ford: ‘it was my dream for many years, and he’s super nice!’ Then came the mega-contracts with Gucci parfums and Shiseido. Onopka was equally unstoppable on the runway, often completing marathon fashion weeks and finishing up on Fashion TV’s ‘First Face’ list, a ranking of that season’s most popular runway models.
Among the hundreds of shows she’s walked, does she have a favourite? ‘My first Dolce & Gabbana show in that red dress. It was so special, because it was the first show which I opened.’ With a look once described as an elongated Marlene Dietrich, she found fans in the emerging fashion blogging community. Among them, blogger Bryanboy, who affectionately dubbed Onopka ‘the apple of my eye.’
By 2006, Onopka was part of a wave of ethereal blonde beauties who ruled fashion in the mid-2000s. A group that included Gemma Ward, Jessica Stam, Caroline Trentini, Sasha Pivovarova and Natasha Poly. It was also during a particularly infamous period of hyper-thin runway models, and Onopka was rather unfairly included in a New York Times feature entitled, ‘When Is Thin Too Thin?’ For that matter, she maintains she’s always kept a healthy approach to eating, and insisted at the time, ‘I’m natural thin, I’m not “skinny”. I don’t think it’s a problem.’
Ultimately though, it was Onopka’s versatility that made her so, well, versatile. A sexy, sun-drenched seductress for Gucci, a doll-like Dietrich for Dolce or an exaggerated anime heroine for Lanvin. Then there was that walk. Think Gisèle’s horse-like gallop combined with a signature icy stare. A stare that earned her the nicknames ‘Divanopka’ and ‘the ice queen of the runway’.
Following her marriage to Ukrainian businessman Mykola Shchur in 2011 (the bride wore Vera Wang), Onopka steadily pulled back on her work. When asked why she’s stepped back in recent years, she’s brutally honest if slightly cryptic, offering only, ‘I was very tired [and] emotional, it’s not easy.’ Like her peers Gemma Ward and Maggie Rizer, who similarly took extended hiatuses from the industry for their own well-being, something of a cult following has formed in her absence. Evidently, GIFs of that distinctive runway strut are the perfect addition to any fashion-related Tumblr post.
Scrolling through her own social media, one gets the distinct feeling the world of high fashion is where Onopka is her happiest. Her Instagram highlights are neatly arranged with titles like ‘Gucci’, ‘Tom Ford’, ‘Calvin Klein’—a curated collection of her greatest hits. She also hopes to one day write a book about her journey in the industry, ‘about fashion and my story in fashion.’ After all these years, she still has creatives she’s dying to work with, too. Top of her list: photographer Chris Colls.
For now, Onopka makes occasional modelling appearances at home and abroad. Still, having inked fresh contracts with agencies Why Not in Milano and the Face in Paris, things seem to be heating up again. This season, Onopka appeared in Fausto Puglisi’s resort 2019 look-book, while her role as an ambassador for Kiev Fashion Week saw her likeness projected on to the city’s tallest skyscraper. She especially likes to support her fellow Ukrainians. She opened the show for Natasha Zinko last September in London and recently closed a presentation for Ruslan Baginskiy, the millinery designer who counts Bella Hadid and Kaia Gerber as fans. Then there are the impressive 1·6 million Instagram followers and a devoted army of fans on sites like The Fashion Spot. ‘I love my followers a lot, they give me a lot of energy!’ Is a full-scale comeback in the works?
‘I will be back for sure, because I love my job and now I feel very good.’ •
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